Saturday, May 15, 2021

Record Roundup: Song Forms

The combination of words and music is as old as language and songs continue to be astonishing transmitters of thoughts, ideas, and feelings, and are limited in form only by their creators' imaginations. Here are a few recent releases mapping out multiple geographies of song form.

Will Liverman and Paul Sanchez - Dreams Of A New Day: Songs By Black Composers You would need know nothing about this album's contents, or even its name, to be immediately struck by Liverman's voice. From the first notes, that we are in the presence of a masterful baritone is immediately clear. He has depth and power to spare, but the transparency and delicacy of his upper range is very distinctive. The contents are special, too, as Liverman followed his passions to present a range of Black composers that takes us from Henry Burleigh, born in 1866, to Shawn Okpebholo, born in 1981. From the latter, we have a world premiere recording of Two Black Churches, commissioned by Liverman, and comprised of a song each for two era-defining acts of violence, the Birmingham church bombing in 1963 and the Charleston shooting in 2015. The first is a setting of Dudley Randall's poem, Ballad Of Birmingham, and Okpebholo has constructed a fascinating piano part (brilliantly played by Sanchez), which seems to both fuel and fragment Liverman's steadfast delivery of the words, occasionally seeking a hymn-like resolution. The second somberly sets The Rain by Marcus Amaker, which provides a stunning bookend to an image from the first song on the album, by Damian Sneed and based on Langston Hughes' I Dream A World. Hughes writes of "joy, like a pearl" attending the needs of mankind, while Amaker's view is bleaker: "When the reality/of racism returns/all joy treads water/in oceans of buried emotion." Okpebholo and Liverman have given us a signature piece for our era that will resonate through the future we are building. And that's just a microcosm of what Sanchez and Liverman have accomplished on this crucial collection.

Caroline Shaw - Narrow Sea From the opening words, "I am a poor wayfaring stranger," you may suspect we are in the world of 19th century American song, specifically hymns. But even if you come to it without that foreknowledge, the creamy, deeply felt soprano of Dawn Upshaw will make you feel those words in your bones. Accompanied by Sō Percussion's wild array of instruments that click, clink, and clatter alongside Gilbert Kalish's searching piano chords, Upshaw sounds completely at home in Shaw's deconstruction of these old songs. My only complaint is that at about 20 minutes, this song cycle leaves me wanting more. Even with the addition of Shaw's Taxidermy, a little gem for percussion and spoken word, Narrow Sea makes me nostalgic for the glory days of "peak CD," when Upshaw and Nonesuch were putting out brilliantly curated albums like The Girl With Orange Lips or White Moon: Songs To Morpheus. I can imagine Shaw's cycle being given context among works by Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, and Christopher Trapani - or some of those composers sourced by Will Liverman. Instead of wallowing, I think I'll just make a playlist with Narrow Sea and Let The Soil Play Its Simple Part, Shaw and Sō's next collaboration, which features 10 new song adaptations sung by Shaw herself, coming June 25th. 

Arooj Aftab - Vulture Prince This is Aftab's third album but the first for me and I can't help feeling I've joined a trajectory near its apogee. That's just another way of saying: WOW. Her complete command of the eclectic environs through which this album transits is nothing short of amazing. She moves many genres, including art song, folk, and in one delicately devastating moment in Last Night. reggae. All of this is infused with the modes and moods of her Pakistani heritage and blended with such subtlety that any seams are invisible. Her taste in collaborators is as finely honed as her compositions, most notably violin wizard Darian Donovan Thomas, who lavishes Baghon Main with his special brand of liquid light. The album is dedicated to Aftab's brother who died during the early stages of its creation and no matter what losses you've experienced in the last few months or years, there is succor and peace to be found in these remarkable songs. As Aftab sings in Saans Lo, with lyrics by Annie Ali Khan: "There’s no one in this desolate world but you, but at least you have yourself/Breathe."

Domenico Lancellotti - Raio After the years that separated his last two albums, Cine Prive (2012) and The Good Is A Big God (2018), having Vai A Serpente, which opens Raio, slide into my Release Radar was an unexpected delight. Begun following a move from Brazil to Portugal, much of Raio was recorded after the pandemic hit, but you would never know any of it was made by remote collaborators. In fact, it feels even more unified than his other albums, almost a song cycle, with themes and textures appearing and reappearing throughout. He's still mining an encyclopedia of Brazilian sounds, leaning more towards the folky and jazzy sides of his homeland and saving his wackier Tropicalia-influenced side for the wry groove of Lanço Minha Flecha and parts of Newspaper, the instrumental that closes the album. Raio is a wonderful album and can serve as an introduction to this special artist as aptly as the others. Start here, start there, just start!

Jane Weaver - Flock My introduction to Weaver was 2017's Modern Kosmology, an explosion of melodically fueled art-pop that was an instant addiction. Now, nearly 30 years into her career, she's gone even further towards pop on Flock, incorporating the raptures of Goldfrapp and Stereolab along the way. With lighter-than-air synths and danceable grooves, Flock is infused with an inspiring sense of unfettered creativity and zero compromise. There's also not a trace of insincerity in Weaver's breezy soprano, which she often uses as an additional musical element, singing repeated lines and sometimes sampling herself. While fans of the bands mentioned above are likely already onto Weaver, there's absolutely no reason why devotees of, say, Billie Eilish wouldn't also be into this - let's hope the algorithms serve them well.

Dry Cleaning - New Long Leg Delivering completely on the promise of their 2019 EPs, this London quartet continues to find variety and invention in their patented blend of Florence Shaw's interior monologue speak-singing and colorfully angular post-punk played by Thomas Paul Dowse (guitar), Lewis Maynard (bass), and Nicholas Hugh Andrew Buxton (drums). John Parish's production has found the ideal balance, sinking Shaw's voice just enough into the mix and treating each instrument with care. Even if the songs weren't so good, New Long Leg would be notable for the bass sound alone, a rounded throb somewhere adjacent to Jah Wobble's work with PiL or Philip Moxam's in Young Marble Giants. The songs can read like stream of consciousness rambles (from Leafy: "I run a tight ship/Helicopter circling/Kalashnikov to look forward to/It’s a glam musical") but somehow assemble in your mind to become stories of fractured relationships, forensically detailing what's left behind or what an imagined future could hold. Speaking of days to come, I hope I get to see them in concert when such things happen again - looks like fun!

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: Catching Up (Sort Of)
Record Roundup: Songs And Singers
Record Roundup: Forms Of Escape

AnEarful acknowledges that this work is created on the traditional territory of the Munsee Lenape and Wappinger peoples.